RALEIGH — Kevin Keatts is only just starting the process of rebuilding the NC State basketball program, but already his influence is making a difference for the Wolfpack.
Just two weeks ago, Keatts’ team accomplished a feat that always seemed to elude previous regimes by following up an upset of then-No. 2 Duke with another win.
Against another ranked opponent, no less.
Thursday, State pulled off yet another rarity when it compensated for an off shooting night by winning a game, gasp, with defense.
The Wolfpack held Wake Forest scoreless for the final 4½ minutes and forced three key turnovers down the stretch to get back to .500 in the ACC with a 72-63 victory at PNC Arena.
“Give our guys a lot of credit,” Keatts said. “I thought we won the game on the defensive end on a night that we weren’t particularly shooting the ball well. We found a way to win another ACC game because our guys defended at the end. Those last four minutes were really good.”
It’s a stretch that began with State trailing 63-61 following a rebound basket by the Deacons’ Doral Moore. Although the Wolfpack was able to tie the game on single free throws by Lavar Batts and Torin Dorn, its strong finish didn’t begin to gain traction until a defensive possession two minutes later.
With the score tied at 63, guards Markell Johnson and Braxton Beverly spearheaded a full-court press that trapped Bryant Crawford and Mitchell Wilbekin in the backcourt and forced the Deacons into a 10-second violation. Johnson, in just his second game back from a month-long suspension, then hit a 15-foot jumper that gave his team the lead and punctuated an 11-0 run to finish the game.
“Plays like that don’t make the SportsCenter Top 10, but they’re plays that can turn the momentum around and win you games,” Beverly said of the pivotal 10-second call. “And it did. That was huge for us.”
The defensive intensity that helped bring about that game-changing turnover and Wake’s final 4½-minute drought could be considered out of character for a Wolfpack team that finished dead last in the ACC in scoring defense and committed more turnovers than it forced a year ago.
Keatts’ first team isn’t much better statistically, but at least it appears as though a concerted effort is being made to improve.
While State (13-6, 3-3 ACC) flipped its usual script to win a game it might previously have lost, Wake (8-10, 1-5) reverted to a familiar bad habit to suffer yet another close loss. With the exception of their lone conference victory, on Jan. 3 against Syracuse, the Deacons have wasted solid early efforts by faltering late with the game on the line.
“We led for 19 minutes. State led for 15 and it was tied for almost five,” Wake coach Danny Manning said. “Anytime you go on the road and put yourself in that situation, you did some good things. But we’ve got to do good things and be able to finish the game.”
The Deacons’ best moments came late in the first half by running off 15 unanswered points to turn a nine-point deficit into a 32-26 lead.
It was a run that came about through a combination of Wake’s aggressiveness in attacking the basket and some questionable shot selection on State’s part. After having some success by feeding big man Omer Yurtseven inside, the Wolfpack inexplicably began hoisting up 3-pointers on almost every possession during a scoreless four-minute span.
State missed eight straight from beyond the arc to finish the first half and made just 7 of 26 attempts for the game. It at least somewhat reverted back to its original game plan in the second half, Yurtseven took advantage to score 13 of his 22 points over the final 20 minutes. Many of them came off passes from either Beverly or Johnson — who combined to hand out 13 of the 18 assists their team recorded in the game.
Johnson finished with 13 points and four assists while Beverly added 10 points to go with nine assists. Dorn was the only other State player in double figures with 11 points, none bigger the the two he got off a feed from Beverly to give the Wolfpack a two-possession lead with 57.5 seconds remaining.
Crawford led Wake with 18 points, five assists and five steals. Big man Moore had one of his best games with 15 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. Both, however, were nonfactors down the stretch, as the Deacons lost their fourth straight and sixth in their last seven games.
“Whoever lost was going to be mad,” Yurtseven said afterward. “I’m just glad we’re not the side that’s frustrated right now.”
As Wolfpack teams in the past might have been.